What African Theologians can teach the Emerging Church
Below are some of the preliminary notes that I’ve been preparing for a workshop I’m co-leading at this years Ekklesia Project Gathering with Scott Bader-Saye. They are still rough. Please help me think through the issues. This will also deepens my previous “Post-Constantinian Cultural Studies” post.
(in 3 parts: Part 1 is an introduction to the Problem. Part 2 will will examine the question of Identity as Bediako sees it through the lense of Patristic and African theologies. Part 3 will look at an appropriation of this method for our postmodern, Wester context.)
1. Intro: The question of relevance and identity.
Relevance- The tyranny of the new- that which is always coming is our Fate. Our future is always just ahead of us, never arriving, but toward which we long to be relevant. This is Modernity, always making something new to free us from custom/tradition/culture. As Stephen Long says, “Modernity is the endless repetition of sameness under the illusion of difference.” We think we have moved on, yet all is sameness. In our modern era the search for relevance is seen in evidentiary apologetics, seeker-sensitive churches, Contemporary Christian Music and the Broader Christian subculture. And the quest for relevance is also seen in the missionary impulse to reach emerging generations, to reach skaters/surfer/ravers/hipsters and urbanites. If they are post-rational, post-literate, post-individualistic, intuitive, aesthetic, and image-drive, then let’s be and do that. Unfortunately, while seeking to reform and transform the modern Church, the Emerging Church movement many time continues to fall prey to the perpetually new and the drive toward relevance undergirded by a missionary theology of contectualization which in a Western setting ends up creating more and more niche market Christian consumers rather than a subversive unified church.
-As we will see, the ancient church fathers and current African thinkers were/are not seeking to be relevant to their surrounding culture, but are seeking a definition and expression of their own particular Christian identity. So, I want to explore the significance of replacing the project of relevance with the project of identity. Let us not seek to be relevant but to express our identity as follows of Christ, as Christians within the particular cultures that we are in.
2. Problem of Identity posed by Kwame Bediako.
The Problem of Identity:
p. xi “I have felt the need to seek a clarification for myself of how the abiding Gospel of Jesus Christ relates to the inescapable issues and questions which arise from the Christian’s cultural existence in the world, and how this relationship is achieved without injury to the integrity of the Gospel.”
– This is a question of the gospel and cultural existence, not of gospel and culture as some whole or reified object. Culture is not a thing to be related to. Rather we should speak of cultural agents.
p. xv “The basic argument which underlies the various chapters is that the development of theological concern and the formulation of theological questions are closely linked as an inevitable by-product of a process of Christian self-definition.” (p. 7) The more enduring problem is not the question of orthodoxy, but “the Christian’s response to the religious past as well as to the cultural tradition generally in which one stands, and the significance of that response for the development of theological answers to the culturally-rooted questions of the context.”
Identity/Self-Definity=Religious past and cultural/tradition present.
Who are we (past) and where are we (present) intersect in the question of identity. Where we are culturally effects how we perceive ourselves, and who we are effects how we stand where we are. For the Fathers it was who are we as Christians uniting the OT and NT in Christ, and where are we in the Graeco-Roman world. For African Theology it is who are we as African Christians in relationship to Mission/Wester Christianity (religious past) and Traditional African religions (cultural present).
The question then at the end of part 1 is, What is the religious past and cultural present of Western Christians?
The Question of Identity: Ancient Parents and African Siblings
Two test cases: Early Church Fathers and African Theologians
Ancient Parent– -church fathers interacted w/ both Judaism and Graeco-Roman culture. The question of Judaism concerns their religious past, seeking a dis/continuous relationship with it. So they appropriated OT and NT as the unified revelation of Christ. The question of identity in this is who are we is relations to our religious past. The question concerning Greaco-Roman cultural tradition is who are we in this place, and how can we understand this tradition through Christ.
i.Justifying Identity- or the Triumph of Barbarism
Tatian and Tertullian sought to vindicate Christian Identity against Hellenism. They wanted to show that Christianity in no way came from, or was indebted to Greek thought or life, and that Hellenism (its philosophical systems and religious life) were dangerous to Christian identity. In fact, Greek philosophy is really a misunderstanding of Moses, who is much before Greek philosophy, meaning that Christians are more ancient than Greeks. (Tatian). This vindicated the Truth of the Gospel outside of and before Greek criteria of acceptability/rationality. Also, Tertullian was still arguing for the right to exist and think as a Christian. His viewpoint is not the evaluation/engagement of culture, but a religious question of faithfulness amidst paganism. Yet, for both Tatian and Tertullian a defense of Identity loses its ability to be an effective witness within dominant culture. (see p. 140)
ii. Identity as Fulfillment- Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria
These theologians seek to establish Christian identity as not just the culmination of the Jewish tradition, but also as the apex of Greek tradition. Justin is not attempting to fuse Christian faith with Greek ideals, rather he attempts to show that the best and brightest of the Greek philosophical tradition, in thoughts, and in persons, was the work of the eternal Word, because Truth has only one source, and that is Christ. The fulfillment-culture Justin Martyr “But his spirit of wisdom was present in very man as his highest intellect, so that not only does Christ represent the culmination of the prophecy of a single religion, even though that is the most ancient religion, but He is the incarnation of the Universal Intelligence which it has been the hopeless struggle of every philosopher to understand.” The answer to the sneers of the philosophers that Christianity was not worthy of an intelligent man’s consideration was thus the counter-attack that philosophy had failed, and that only in Christianity was the end of philosophy to be found.
African Siblings– For African Theology it is who are we as African Christians in relationship to Missionary/Western Christianity (religious past) and Traditional African religions (cultural present). Concerning Missionary Christianity, instead of positively appropriating their religious past like the church fathers, they are needing to critically disentangle themselves from Western Christianity. They are de-westernizing Christianity in their process of self-definition as a means of dealing w/ their religious past. And concerning their cultural present, African Theologian see Christianity as fulfillment of Africa traditions.
i. Fulfillment of Africa– The theologian Idowu sees that God was already at work in africa, revealing himself as the one God. Africans are really monotheists. Mbiti sees Church as the fulfillment of aspirations of tribe, family, community. Aspirations are not destroyed, but fulfilled in the church.
ii. Indigenous Church: Idowu- Indigenization of the church. “We mean by it simply that the Church should bear the unmistakable stamp of the fact that she is the Church of God in Nigeria. It should be no longer an outreach or a colony of Rome, Canterbury or Westminster Central Hall in London, or the vested interests of some European or American Missionary Boardâ€¦the Church in Nigeria should be the Church which affords Nigerians the means of worshipping God as Nigerians; that is, in a way which is compatible with their own spiritual temperament, of singing to the glory of God in their own way, of praying to God and hearing Hid Holy Word in idiom whih is clearly intelligible to themâ€¦She should beâ€¦the spiritual home of Christian Nigerians, a home in which they breathe an atmosphere of spiritual freedom.”
iii. Indigenous Church: Mbiti “Mbiti makes a distinction between Christianity on the one hand, and the Christian Faith or the Gospel, on the other. Christianity, which ‘results from the encounter of the Gospel with any given local or regional community/society,’ is always indigenous and, by definition, culture bound. The Gospel is God given, Christianity is a result from the encounter with the Gospel in a local cultures. African theologian John Mbiti says, “We can add nothing to the Gospel, for this is an eternal gift of God; but Christianity is always a beggar seeking food and drink, cover and shelter from the cultures it encounters in it never-ending journeys and wanderings.” Also, “To speak of ‘indigenising christianity’ is to give the impression that Christianity is a ready-made commodity which has to be transplanted to a local area. Of course, this has been the assumption followed by many missionaries and local theologians. I do not accept it any more.” This is Mbitiâ€™s argument against contextualization (which assumes an unchanging essence of Christianity.
These are my summary notes of Bediako’s text/argument. In Part 3 I will look at an appropriation of this method of “theology and identity” based in religious tradition and cultural present for our postmodern, Wester context.
Indigenous postmodern Faith– Now, back to our initial question: How can we replace the project of relevance with the project of identity. What is the religious past and cultural present of Western Christians?
a.Religious Past– coming to terms w/ our religious past, or who are we by examining both:
i.De-westernizing: living beyond the encroachments of Enlightenment rationality and practices which evacuates the Faith of it power. (Resourses: in this aspect, our global siblings are paving the way).
ii. Post-Constantinian: living beyond the abdication of the Church to the State as the agent of salvation in its various manifestations through history (Constintine, State Church, Privatized Faith), esp. the current form of Evangelicalism underwriting the liberal-democratic project. Yet, this is not merely overcoming the form, but living with the specter of that very history, which is not a history imported from another as in the African case, but our own history. (Resources: Parents and Siblings can’t inform our dis/continuous appropriation of history, but projects such as Radical Orthodox and The Ekklesia Project are supplying tools.)
b. Cultural Present: (post-/high-/late-modernity)- coming to terms w/ our cultural present, or where are we.
i. For Westerners, we are not dealing with current pagan religions (which African, Asian, Indian theologian must contend with). Rather we live in a secular and post-secular culture.
1. Secular in the sense of living: after the Industrial Revolution where everything sacred turns to vapor through manufacturing and science; living after/in Capitalism where all relationships are transformed into producer and consumer.
2. Post-secular in the sense that religion and the spiritual have been reintroduced into society/culture as a commodity exchanged and changed like any other material and semiotic product. The sacred is not a special-effect disconnected from a way of life.
ii. In addition to this material revolution there is the Intellectual Revolution of the Enlighten which defines the cultural horizon of the West. But just as a pagan religion that Bediako might investigate in Africa, the Enlightenment has its own myths, stories, hopes, fears, and ways of life which giving meaning to the human project, just like any religion, and its called liberal-democratic-capitalism.
c. Fulfillment culture–
i. As discussed in Part 2, we should take the perspective of the Church as the fulfillment of any particular culture, rather than merely an antagonistic counter-culture. It is not a we will change for you (relevance), but we accomplish (in identity) what you desire to be. Instead of appropriating postmodern elements/forms, we look to where they point and show that in Christ (in his body the church) they are fulfilled. -This is exactly what postmodern /theologians should be doing, and I think what Radical Orthodoxy is trying to do. Philosophy, w/o theology, has failed in the Western world, just as Greek philosophy failed when it tried to appropriate Moses and the Scriptures. While couched in religious terms rather than intellectual, Justin celebrated that efforts of certain Greek before Christ and calls them Christians even though they might be considered atheists, b/c of their willingness to denounce idolatry and misguided religion. This is similar to calling Derrida, Foucault, etc. allies because they critique that idolatrous nature of Modernity.
ii. However, this task is complicated because our culture has no clearly articulate vision of the Good toward which it is aiming. The only Good for the West is Freedom which has ended up hanging itself on the leash they tied religion to (religion which always thwarted Freedom in their opinion.) So how do we fulfill the aspirations of a culture which has non besides consumer choice? Unlike the ancient Fathers and African brothers, we must first take the negative route of articulating the void, exposing the lacks and false leads of Western culture. (this is where the real work begins, and where I’m just begin so I don’t have must to offer here.)
As we negotiate b/w our religious past and our cultural present we will find our identity Christians within postmodernity (rather than merely receiving it from modern missionaries to the postmodern generation), and through this we will seek the fulfill of the culture we are immersed in, rather than a superficial relevancy.
5. So the questions i’m still working on
a. What are the contours or intersections of our identity- global, urban, postmodern?
b. What are barriers to expressing our identity?
c. How do we link this identity to the universal Church?
d. Who are the missionaries? Who are the natives?